If you’re doing a documentary and more than half your talking heads have written books on the subject they’re discussing and have already appeared in multiple documentaries on the same subject, chances are good that the project you’re working on, while it may be interesting, isn’t going to be particularly fresh.
As evidence, I give you Netflix’s new three-part Fear City: New York vs. the Mafia, an occasionally entertaining and never revelatory offering that dares to walk where countless documentaries have meandered before. Fear City gets bonus points for offering a slightly different perspective on the attempt to topple organized crime in the ’80s, but loses points for its gallery of testimonials from people who almost all look like they’re tired of telling these stories. (Epix’s Helter Skelter, a look at the Manson Family murders that premieres this weekend, has a comparable problem, but tells its story with a bit more depth and consistency.)
The typical approach to Mafia documentaries, and everybody from AMC to Reelz has done several, is to start from the mobsters’ perspective. They’re the ones with the colorful vernacular, the horrifying confessions and the teetering infrastructure.
The inversion here, at least as I’m interpreting it, is to approach law enforcement the way we’d usually approach the Five Families. Terms like “RICO” are given the solemnity normally dedicated to “omertà” or “gabagool,” and the hierarchy of field agents, supervisors and state’s attorneys are positioned to parallel a Mafia flowchart of bosses, underbosses, capos and soldiers. And while you might think it’s more entertaining to hear recollections of torture and whackings, the best parts of Fear City are absolutely the suspense set pieces revolving around the placement of bugs in various mob enclaves. Seriously, Fear City feels like it’s at least half about bug management.
Instead of (or, more precisely, in addition to) mythologizing the legendary godfathers of crime, Fear City prefers to dedicate most of its hero worship to figures like G. Robert Blakey, who invented the RICO statute, legendary New York City beret model Curtis Sliwa and, inevitably, Rudy Giuliani, whose role in orchestrating the Mafia Commission trial in 1985 and 1986 cemented the legal-career ascent that then launched him into politics. I approached Fear City with some trepidation that it was going to be three hours of Giuliani hagiography — this would be the rare time it would be reasonably justified — but that’s not the direction helmer Sam Hobkinson takes. Giuliani, who has, of course, told these stories many times to anybody who would listen, is given a position of respect in the documentary, but more time goes to Michael Chertoff, John Savarese and Gil Childers, the assistant U.S. attorneys who were entrusted with the epic case at absurdly young ages.
There’s still a Mafia presence in Fear City, to be sure, but the only two mob figures appearing on camera are Johnny Alite and Michael Franzese. Both are, for better or worse, professional informants at this point. You can go on YouTube and find several lengthy interviews Alite has done on the subject, or you can read his book — or any of the websites that discredit everything he says. The same is true of Franzese, who spills stories to more than 35,000 Twitter followers on a daily basis when he isn’t ranting about his distrust of liberal politicians and conversion to Christianity. Both men are exhaustively well versed in what they can or can’t reveal and how they want to present themselves to gossip-starved audiences. In three episodes, neither said anything that made me even raise an eyebrow in curiosity.
But the Mafia Commission trial, how it was built and why it was unique, is interesting stuff, and Hobkinson lays the foundation in a way that’s meant to accentuate how unsexy it often was. Rather than an attempt to catch one of these well-insulated wiseguys gun in hand, it was an assemblage of ambiguous surveillance transcripts and snapshots representing a vast criminal conspiracy tied to the Manhattan construction and concrete industries. This means a lot of close-ups of reenacted reel-to-reel recorders with subtitled audio and jittery black-and-white visualizations of cameras adjusting focus and whatnot. I’d describe the general aesthetic as “Guy who watched Donnie Brasco a few times but didn’t pay attention to whether 1975 and 1985 look different.”
I’m on the permanent record as generally anti-reenactment, but Hobkinson at least had an idea here. The actual law enforcement figures, generally shot in period-appropriate diners or dingy office space, appear in the reenactments, basically performing their old duties. So those are the real FBI agents donning retro headphones to listen to the fruits of their wiretaps or sitting in vintage cars to simulate being on stakeouts. It’s hard to articulate how this enhances the experience, though it might have hints of the same poignancy Spike Lee achieved by having his cast of older actors playing themselves in Vietnam-era flashbacks in Da 5 Bloods. I wish there were more consistency to when and how the reenactment device is used, but there are general potholes of sloppiness throughout Fear City.
Like why am I reading a title card that says, “Five untouchable Mafia family hold the city in their grip,” followed immediately by a talking head saying, “New York was held in the grip of the Mafia.” Such sloppy redundancies, as well as comically on-the-nose soundtrack choices, pop up throughout the doc. Come on, don’t cue up “Disco Inferno” to follow your “Disco was sweeping the nation” commentary if you want me to take you seriously. And man, there’s a lot of tiptoeing around the name “Donald Trump,” which pops up several times — we’re talking New York City real estate in the ’80s, so how could it not? — without coming close to drawing any meaningful implications.
But it’s a good story, if not a story inherently matched to the series’ chosen format. With two episodes clocking in at less than 45 minutes and one running longer than an hour, you probably should have done four installments with more depth or a feature-length doc with tighter editing and fewer by-the-numbers talking head segments from Alite and Franzese. Fans of mobster programming probably won’t complain.
Premieres July 22 (Netflix)